The Limits of Knowing

The tower of knowing reaches higher and higher into the sky. Its foundations support apparently infinite extension. Each floor includes the beginning of a staircase that ascends to yet another level. We build this tower faster and faster. We build machines to speed up the process even more – through automation, efficiency, scalability.

And yet our spiritual hunger – our need to know and to be right in and about our knowing – continues unabated. It is as if we are a starving people eating air. No matter how much of it we swallow, it does not satisfy. It does not nourish. It does not end, even briefly, our hunger.

One who would be fed in a sustainable way – so as to sustainably feed others in turn – does not eschew knowledge but simply sees clearly the inherent futility of any ultimate end to it.

We are not rats in a maze to which we shall one day find an exit. We are not ensouled primates begging favor from Heaven while avoiding Hell. And we are not lanterns whose function is to be set aflame and to remain so lit unto eternity.

We did not ask to be given this experience because it arises of its own accord. Nor are we the authors of its conclusion. There is no maze to be let out from.

There is no distinction between the structure of our bodies and that to which the word “soul” might point, which is another way of saying there is neither a mediator to help us bridge the gap, nor a gap that needs to be bridged.

And the function of a lantern is to be lit and hefted, then darkened and put away, and then lit and hefted, and then darkened and put away. To seek only one of those states – and to seek to make it permanent unto the exclusion of the other – is to miss the contingent nature of light and dark and the one who perceives them both distinctly.

In Cambridge once, a man stumbled out of the library – stacks of books spilling from his carosel, pages of random essays flying away behind him in the breeze – and fell exhausted onto a bench facing the slow unfurling of the Charles River in late summer sunlight. A lifetime of study had suddenly vanished from his mind, leaving it clear and smooth, like a prism through which the sun streamed. He felt as if were a dog suddenly liberated from leash and collar and the owner who had insisted such restraints were necessary. It was as if he had awakened from a dream of confinement and restriction and could run now in open fields or nap in a nest of old blankets or trot slowly along a forest path.

Questions beget answers, and those answers beget new questions which in turn beget answers, and it is neither right nor wrong, nor good nor bad, to partake of this cycle. Yet in our confusion, we do not see this cycle, but think we are following a line (meandering but ultimately true) at the end of which is THE ANSWER, and that THE ANSWER is the One True God, and this God is glad at our arrival, and so we are glad, too.

It is not so.

wagon_wheelThe wheel of a wagon executes an interminable circle. It loops forever. Yet the line it leaves behind it is straight and singular – possessed of both beginning and end – and apparently unerring in its linearity. Imagine the turning wheel gazes at this line, sighs and asks “What is happening? What am I?”

The line does not answer, for the line is merely an effect of the wheel. And the wheel only turns: and turns: and turns.

february thaw –
the chickadees and I
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